Family Forest Owner Field Days Bring Forest Stewardship to Landowners

By Patrick Shults, Extension Forester, Washington State University, patrick.shults@wsu.edu

For years now, WSU Extension and the Washington State Department of Natural Resources have coordinated to provide landowners with a hands-on experience in forest management through the annual Family Forest Field Days.

These events present a rare opportunity to learn about a wide variety of forest-related topics in one day and allow participants to choose their own curriculum based on what piques their interest.

forest field day 1
A scene from the 2018 Steve Stinson Legacy Family Forest Field Day in Woodland. (Photo by Paul Figueroa)

Experts from around the state will be there to talk about silviculture, forest health, wildfire, planting, thinning, chainsaw safety and maintenance, harvesting, special forest products, and more.

Additionally, vendors representing landowner assistance organizations, equipment companies, and other services available to landowners in Washington will be there to help attendees find the right tools and support to take care of their forest projects.

This year’s dates and locations for field days were scheduled for:

  • Glenwood – June 8
  • Deary, Idaho – June 22
  • Arlington – August 10
  • McCleary – August 24
forest field day 2
A masticator is demonstrated at the 2018 Family Forest Field Day in Spangle, Wash. (Photo by Patrick Shults)

Wherever your forest is and whatever your experience level, the field day will give you a chance to pursue your forest management goals through education, planning, and networking with professionals. Don’t miss out!

Learn more at forestry.wsu.edu or in the Events section below.

What is Agroforestry? And Why Would Forest Owners Care?

By Patrick Shults, Extension Forester, Washington State University, patrick.shults@wsu.edu

Silvopasture, forest farming, agroforestry … you may have heard these terms thrown around before. But what do they mean?

“Agroforestry” in its simplest definition is a land management method that integrates forestry and agriculture into the same production system (“agriculture” + “forestry” = agroforestry). This means that the different parts (trees, livestock, crops) are intentionally managed together in a way that promotes positive interactions and minimizes competition.

When done correctly, agroforestry can both diversify and maximize production for a landowner while improving soil quality, wildlife habitat, biodiversity, and a host of other ecosystem services.

While it may seem like a new concept, it is only newly popular in the U.S. and other temperate climates. The concept of agroforestry is actually quite old and has been used by native cultures for centuries, including in North America.

In tropical climates, it continues to be a popular form of land management for sustainably producing food, fiber, and fuel on small plots. However, on-the-ground practices look quite different in temperate climates compared to the tropics.

I’ve listed out the five most common agroforestry practices used in temperate countries and given them brief descriptions. Though some are geared towards agricultural producers who may want to introduce trees to their cropping systems, all offer opportunities for forest owners to diversify what they do on their lands.

Windbreaks

windbreak
This windbreak is protecting an agricultural field in the Upper Midwest. (Photo by the University of Minnesota Extension)

Windbreaks (or wind rows) are the first modern agroforestry practice to take place in the United States and were widely used during the Dust Bowl in the 1930s to reduce soil erosion in the Midwest.

This practice involves planting single or multiple rows of trees and/or shrubs which modify wind movement in your cropping system. Besides reducing erosion, they can also protect crops from damaging winds, reduce pesticide drift and livestock odors, provide wildlife habitat, provide fuelwood, and, in some cases, even improve crop production by regulating soil and air temperature.

Riparian Buffers and/or Forest Farming

forest farming
These log structures are part of a shitake mushroom forest farming operation at Wildcat Creek Tree Farm in McCleary. (Photo by Patrick Shults)

Another practice that primarily serves a “protective” purpose with additional benefits, riparian buffers are used to reduce pesticide and fertilizer runoff into waterways throughout agricultural lands in the Midwest. This requires a buffer of trees, shrubs, and ground flora surrounding streams, ponds, wetlands, and other important water resources on your property.

As forest owners in Washington State, pesticide and fertilizer runoff may not be as big of a concern. Moreover, you may already have a mandated forested buffer on your stream if it is considered fish-bearing.

Regardless, buffers like these protect waterways effectively and also serve as an opportunity for another agroforestry practice, forest farming. In the Appalachians and Midwest, forest farming often involves manipulating the forest canopy to foster valuable native plant species that require a shaded forest setting, such as ginseng or goldenseal.

In the Pacific Northwest, this practice could be used to produce non-timber forest products like berries, mushrooms, fuelwood, and valuable floral products.

Silvopasture

silvopasture
Cows graze between rows of pine trees at an Alabama farm. (Photo by the Alabama Cooperative Extension System)

Likely the most common existing agroforestry practice for landowners in Washington state, silvopasture is the integration of livestock, trees, and forage. Although they may not call it silvopasture, many landowners run their livestock through their woodlots in both Eastern and Western Washington.

When done more intentionally, silvopasture provides considerable benefits to producers interested in selling both timber and livestock products. Trees provide protection and help to regulate air temperature which allows livestock to expend less energy heating and cooling their bodies.

The reduced stress for the animals can lead to greater milk production, reaching target weights quicker, and higher conception rates. Additionally, it allows a rancher to produce a long-term timber product or a forest owner to produce short-term income from livestock.

Although from both perspectives it may mean raising fewer cattle or fewer trees, the diversified and combined income can surpass that of growing only trees or raising only cattle.

Implementing silvopasture can be tricky, particularly in Western Washington, where the soils are more susceptible to compaction. More resources are available at the end of this article.

Alley Cropping

alley cropping
Walnut trees and corn plants are planted in alley crops at a Minnesota farm. (Photo by the University of Minnesota Extension)

This practice involves growing high-value timber, veneer, or fruit and nut trees at a wide spacing to create “alleys” in which you can produce agricultural crops. In the Southeast, where agroforestry is increasingly popular, this may mean growing things like corn, soybeans, or tomatoes between rows of black walnut trees. In Washington, this may mean growing crops between rows of Douglas-fir, Ponderosa pine, or other native species.

Alley cropping is yet another way for landowners to diversify and increase income on their lands while sacrificing minimal growing space for trees. When done correctly it provides short and long-term products, improved soil nutrient cycling, biodiversity, wildlife habitat, and, in some cases, improved crop yields.

These five practices are considered the pillars of temperate agroforestry, but truthfully it is a wide umbrella with significant room for creativity, which appeals to some landowners.

Every parcel is unique and comes with special challenges. The flexibility of agroforestry allows landowners to find the approach that best fits their situation.

Why Should a Forest Owner Care?

Agroforestry is not for everyone.

But for landowners looking to diversify their production for commercial or personal use, agroforestry may be a viable option to do so without sacrificing significant tree-growing space. Agroforestry practices are catching on throughout modern and developing countries because they can often create a “win-win” scenario that makes both the landowners and the land more resilient to economic and environmental changes.

Despite their many benefits, these practices can be difficult to implement and require considerable forethought, planning, and, often, years of trial and error.

Because it is a relatively new area of research and every situation is unique, there is often limited information and recommendations available to landowners. This is especially true in the Pacific Northwest, which has trailed behind areas like the Midwest and Southeast in widescale implementation.

So, while it is likely not a good idea for an inexperienced landowner to turn their entire 20-acre forest or farm into an agroforestry operation at once, I would encourage interested landowners to do their research, seek professional help, and begin experimenting in small ways.

If you’d like to read more, below are links to available resources and publications.  For the very interested folks, check out the 2019 North American Agroforestry Conference in Corvallis this June.

Additional Resources:

Silvopasture: An Agroforestry Practice – Oregon State University

Agroforestry in the Pacific Northwest – U.S. Forest Service

National Agroforestry Center

University of Missouri – Center for Agroforestry

Association for Temperate Agroforestry

You’ve Got Soil Questions, and We’ve Got Answers

If you want to know how to access soil information for your property, work with multiple soils, or learn how to adapt your forest management for the soils you have, the USDA has online resources available to all that can help guide you through those processes.

Q: How can I access soil information for my property?

A: The U.S. Department of Agriculture publishes soil survey data online through a platform called Web Soil Survey. Although some areas are still undergoing initial mapping, the vast majority of private lands in the Pacific Northwest have soil survey data available. The data is available to the public, and best of all, it’s free! The following steps will help you obtain soils information for your property:

Step 1: Start Web Soil Survey by going to websoilsurvey.sc.egov.usda.gov/App/HomePage.htm. Click the large green “START WSS” button.

qa1

Step 2: Define your area of interest (AOI). This is the area for which you will be obtaining soil survey data. You can simply enter an address or select a state/county, click “view”, and then zoom to your desired location on the map. Other navigation options are also available, although these methods are the most common and user-friendly.

qa2

Once you are zoomed to your property or desired location, click the rectangular AOI tool to drag a box or use the polygon AOI tool to click around your select your AOI.

qa3

The rectangle or polygon you select should then look like this:

qa4

Step 3: View your soil map. Click the “Soil Map” tab at the top of your screen to see the soil survey map for your AOI. The map unit legend will appear on the left side of your screen. Clicking on the name of a map unit in the legend will open a window containing a description of that map unit and its individual soil components.

qa5

Q: The soil map unit covering my property has multiple soils in it. How do I know which one I am working with?

A: In order to answer this question effectively I first need to clarify what exactly a “map unit” is, as well as explain the different types of map units used in soil surveys.

A map unit is a collection of areas defined and named the same in terms of their soil components (unique soil types) and/or miscellaneous (“non-soil”) areas. Each polygon delineated on a soil map is assigned a label or symbol that corresponds to a map unit. There are four general types of map units, however, for the purpose of this discussion I will focus on the three most commonly seen in soil survey products.

Consociations are map units dominated by a single soil component. A consociation may include minor components that occupy a relatively small (< 15%) percentage of the map unit area, but the map unit name will contain only the name of the dominant soil. Complexes and associations are map units consisting of two or more dissimilar components that occur in a consistent repeating pattern. The soil components comprising a complex cannot be separated at the mapping scale, while the components of an association can be; however, due to land use or user needs, they are not. Both of these map unit types may also include minor components. The map unit names for complexes and associations will contain the names of multiple soils.

Now to answer the original question: The map unit description (accessible by following step 3 above) will provide descriptions of typical site the soil characteristics for each component in the map unit. The type of map unit covering your property can be inferred from the map unit name. If the map unit is a consociation, the soil component that you are most likely working with is going to be the single dominant component for that map unit. However, if the specific area on your property is not representative of the map unit’s typical landscape/landform, you may be working with a minor component.

If the map unit covering your property is a complex or association, you will have to look at the map unit description to determine the component(s) you are working with. Soils tend to correlate strongly with topography, so focusing on the “setting” category for each component’s description is recommended. If the setting details alone don’t allow you to confidently determine your soil, the “properties and qualities” category under each component’s description would be the next best place to look. The goal is to find the component that has both a setting and soil characteristics that best match the point on your property that you are interested in. If that area on your property is rather large and not uniform, there is a high probability that multiple soils will exist in that area, especially if the map unit is a complex.

Q: How can soil information help me make management decisions?

A: Having a basic understanding of the distribution and characteristics of your soils can be extremely beneficial to you as a landowner. Knowledge of soil properties such as texture, drainage class, depth to a restrictive layer, and flooding or ponding frequency can influence management decisions including road and structure placement, as well as species selection and planting density strategies.

The summary information found in the map unit description provides a great overview of site and soil properties. However, the Web Soil Survey platform also contains hundreds of interpretations and thematic maps specifically designed to aid in the making of management decisions. Again, these tools are free and available to the public! The following steps will walk you through how to access and use these valuable tools.

Step 1: Define your AOI and access your soil map, as shown in steps 1-3 above. Click on the “Soil Data Explorer” tab. Then click either the “Suitabilities and Limitations for Use” or “Soil Reports” tab.

qa6

Step 2: Both the “Land Management” and “Vegetative Productivity” categories have several interpretations concerning various aspects of forestry operations. Click the downward facing arrow for these categories and then click the downward facing arrow for any interpretation you would like to run. Look through the options and customize them to best apply to your situation. For example:

qa7

Step 3: Once you have your options selected, click the “View Rating” button to see your customized interpretive map. Click the yellow “Legend” tab on the upper-left side of the map to see the map legend. Below the map will be tables containing more detailed results for the selected interpretation.

qa8

Step 4: Explore the many reports and interpretations available under the “Suitabilities and Limitations for Use” and “Soil Reports” tabs. You may save the results of any report or interpretation by clicking the “Add to Shopping Cart” button located in the upper-right of the screen.  You can save numerous interpretations and reports by adding them to your cart. When you are finished, simply click on the “Shopping Cart (Free)” tab, review the table contents, and then click “Check Out” to download a PDF copy of your comprehensive report.

Max Ross, Soil Scientist, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, max.ross@wa.usda.gov

Application Cut-off Date Extended for EQIP Statewide Initiatives

The application deadline for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) in Washington state has been extended to October 16, 2015.

Environmental Quality Incentives Program in Washington State The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which operates the program, says that eligible producers, including forest landowners, now have until October 16 to submit applications for consideration in fiscal year 2016. The original deadline was July 17, 2015. Producers should also expect to work with NRCS to write a personalized conservation plan before funding is authorized.

The voluntary federal program provides technical and financial assistance program to farmers who want to improve irrigation efficiency; manage run-off of nutrients or animal waste; improve the health of native plant communities; and reduce soil losses. In most instances, producers who participate in the program pay for roughly half of the costs of the conservation measures or practices.

EQIP funding options include:

EQIP Local Working Group funding pool: Funding for regional priority resource concerns identified by counties.

EQIP Organic Initiative: Helps organic farmers, ranchers and dairy operators and those transitioning to organic production in Washington state to plan and install conservation measures such as buffer strips, conservation crop rotation, cover crops, field borders, mulching, nutrient management, and other steps.

EQIP High Tunnel Initiative: Financial and technical assistance for agricultural producers to plan and install seasonal high tunnels to extend the growing season and improve soil health.

EQIP Conservation Activity Plans. Plans can be developed for producers to identify conservation practices that address a specific natural resource needs.

EQIP Energy Initiative: Helps producers conserve energy on their farms through on-farm energy audits.

EQIP Sage Grouse Initiative: Helps private landowners to voluntarily protect sage-grouse populations and habitat on their working lands.

“Extending the deadline will give producers more time to complete their applications and have a greater chance of getting conservation funding during this fiscal year,” said Assistant State Conservationist for Programs, Jeff Harlow.

While NRCS programs operate on a year-round signup basis, and producers can file applications at any time, periodic ranking deadlines are established so applications on file at that time can be evaluated for the next available funding allocation.

Applicants must provide a Data Universal Numbering System (DUNS) number, be registered in the System for Award Management (SAM), and maintain an active registration with current information prior to applying for funding and to remain eligible for payments under a funded contract. For more information regarding SAM and DUNS, or if interested in applying for EQIP funding, contact your local NRCS field office.

Focus On: Designated Forest Land

Designated forest land is a property tax assessment option that has some advantages for forest landowners. Normally, real property in the state of Washington is taxed based on an estimate of its fair market value, which should reflect what is called “highest and best use” (HBU): the most economically advantageous use of the land (often real estate development). With the designated forest land option, the taxable value of forested land is assessed for forestry use, which is a much lower value. This option was established by the Washington state legislature in the 1970s (Revised Code of Washington, 84.33).

The purpose of the designated forest land option encourage landowners to keep their land in forest use and reduce the economic disincentives for doing so. The legislature recognized that productive forest lands provide a multitude of public benefits such as water supply, soil protection, stormwater management, wildlife habitat, aesthetics, recreation opportunity, ecosystem health, and jobs (Revised Code of Washington, 84.33.010(1)).

Qualifying for the Designation

The assessed value of designated forest land is set in statute and in 2014 ranged from $1/acre to $189/acre based on soil productivity and operability, which takes into account the ease and cost of timber extraction. Current values can be found on the Department of Revenue (DOR) website. In contrast to these values, assessed market values could be thousands of dollars per acre. Designating your land as forest can reduce the tax burden by up to 99 percent on the forested portions of your property. The assessment of the residential (e.g. home site) portion of your property and any structures would not see a reduction.

To be designated as forestland, the land must be at least five contiguous acres of forest (which can comprise multiple adjacent parcels), not including any residential portions. Typically, a minimum of one acre is excluded from the designation when there is a residence on the land. Thus, landowners living on their property should have at least six acres total, five of which must be forest. The law specifies that land designated as forest must be “devoted primarily to growing and harvesting timber” (Revised Code of Washington 84.33.035(5)). Those who are primarily interested in managing their forestland for aesthetics, recreation, habitat, etc., or do not intend to use their land for timber production for other reasons should not enroll in this option. At the discretion of the county assessor, a written timber management plan may be required when enrolling or selling designated forestland. To help landowners weave their way through the various requirements, WSU Extension designed its Forest Stewardship Coached Planning classes to help land owners write their own qualifying timber management plans. Land owners may also opt to hire a consultant to write the management plan.

The acreage minimum for designated forest land used to be 20 acres. However, the law changed in 2014 to reduce the minimum to five acres. Until 2014, a separate-but-similar program — open space timber —was available to landowners with five or more acres. The purpose of the law change was to streamline and simplify things by not having two separate programs. Counties are not required to eliminate their open space timber programs, but they are given the option to do so. In many counties, landowners may receive a notice from the county assessor that their land is being transferred from open space timber to designated forestland. This does not change the landowner’s tax benefit or otherwise have negative impacts, so landowners who receive this notice should not be concerned.

While designated forestland has its basis in state law, it is administered at the county level by the assessor’s office. Application must be made by December 31 for consideration the following year. If the county does not make a decision about an application by May 1 of that following year, it is automatically considered approved. If the application is approved that following year, the property will be assessed that year at the new, lower rate for taxes that will be payable in the year after that. For example, if you apply for forestland designation before December 31, 2015, and it is approved, your property will be assessed at the lower forestland value in 2016 for taxes payable in 2017. The first year of lower tax payments would be 2017.

Removing the forestland designation

Those who have a forestland designation but wish to remove it are likely to face another tax: known as compensating tax. This tax is calculated by taking the tax difference between the designated forest land assessment and the full value assessment in the year that the designation is removed and multiplying by nine years, or however many years the land was enrolled, if fewer than nine years.

Because this can be a significant tax amount, landowners should carefully consider their long-term plans before applying to classify their property as designated forest land. If a landowner is not committed to managing the land for timber production for at least ten years, this designation might not be a good option. Designated forest land can be sold and can retain the designation so long as the buyer agrees in writing to continue managing for timber production. This agreement is called a continuance. The county assessor may require the buyer signing a continuance to submit a new timber management plan. If the buyer declines a continuance, the seller must pay the compensating tax to the county before the sale can be recorded.

Impact on community, taxes

Some have raised objections to the program, claiming that decreasing the tax burden on forestland effectively increases the tax burden on other lands in the county. Others, however, note that forestland owners are expected to provide many public benefits with no compensation and also have many regulatory constraints imposed upon them by the public. Furthermore, studies of the cost of community services have found that forestlands contribute more in taxes than they cost in public services (a median of $0.37 in services required per $1.00 of revenue produced), while residential lands cost more in public services than they contribute in taxes ($1.19 in services required per $1.00 of revenue produced), according to a 2007 report by the American Farmland Trust. Thus the issue of equability is subject to debate.

By Kevin Zobrist, Regional Extension Forestry Specialist, kevin.zobrist@wsu.edu

(This article was first published in January 2015 WSU North Puget Sound Extension Forestry E-Newsletter)